Ex-Senator James Webb wrote a book, Born Fighting, (which I haven’t read) about the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachia plateau. If it hadn’t been taken, it would have made a good title for C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Trouble.
Appalachian mountaineers were the product of a culture of honor which also was a culture of violence. They believed in standing by their word and by family friends and family; they believed in never showing fear, never backing down and always avenging in any insult or injury.
These values enabled them to survive in the lawless Kentucky wilderness frontier. Vance in his book argues that this same heritage is inadequate to help them survive in a declining industrial America.
The book is worth reading because his experiences and family history show how patterns of behavior that can trap people in poverty and misery, and also ways of breaking out of of those patterns.
He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family roots are in Jackson, Kentucky—in “bloody Breathitt” county, known for its feuds. His maternal grandparents, Jim Vance, then aged 16, and Bonnie Blanton, then 13 and pregnant, fled Kentucky for Ohio in 1950, and eventually settled down in Middletown.
At the age of 12, his grandmother shot a cattle thief and would have finished him off if somebody hadn’t stopped her.
Once she told C.D.’s grandfather that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. He did come home drunk once again, and, a woman of her word, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. Remarkably he escaped with only minor injuries and this did not destroy their relationship.
She once warned C.D. that if he continued to hang out with a classmate who smoked marijuana, she would run over the classmate with her car. He found that a credible threat.
His grandmother and her husband, who never went anywhere without loaded guns in their pockets or under their car seats, flouted conventions of middle-class behavior. But they were honest, hard-working and self-reliant; they were able to look out for themselves and their loved ones.
Not so C.D.’s drug-addicted mother. His life with her and a succession of men in her life was one of unremitting emotional violence. Here’s what he said he learned at home about marital relationships:
Never speak in a reasonable volume when screaming will do. If the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first. Always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner. If all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.
His childhood left him with permanent scars. He said he still has to struggle to escape the conditioning to immediately retaliate for any affront, no matter what the consequences. He reminds me of the black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his accounts of growing up in violent inner-city Baltimore.